Reprising memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, terrorists reportedly linked to Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Mohammed have attacked an air force base in Pathankot in Punjab. While the government initially tried to downplay the scale of the attack – home minister Rajnath Singh even prematurely tweeted on Saturday of a “successful operation” – the assault has gone on for two days and till Sunday night had resulted in the death of at least seven Indian security personnel, including a Lieutenant Colonel, Niranjan Kumar, from the elite National Security Guard.

As a number of observers have pointed out, a terror attack was almost expected after prime minster Narendra Modi’s grand overtures to Pakistan last week. This is not the surprising part: what’s extraordinary is the calm, almost clinical, response of the Modi government to this attack.

Modi’s measured reaction

Narendra Modi’s reaction to the attack was in sharp contrast to his earlier shrill politics on the issue of terror. He, in fact, took great care to not name Pakistan, blaming a more anodyne “enemies of humanity” for the attack on a military base.

On the next day, Sunday, as Indian forces were involved in a fierce gunfight with the two remaining terrorists, Modi was tweeting about Yoga and the diversity of humanity.

Of course, how Modi utilises this immense political capital he has with respect to Pakistan remains to be seen in the days to come. Will he snap back to his hardline stance? Or will he take advantage of his unique position to keep on engaging with Pakistan?

Of course, this is in stark contrast to the earlier United Progressive Alliance government, which often came under heavy pressure to respond aggressively after a terror attack emanating from Pakistan. In 2013, for example, in response to a border attack which left five Indian troops dead, defence minister AK Antony was quick to blame Pakistan directly for the act of terrorism. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also called off his upcoming meeting with Nawaz Sharif.

What explains this sharp difference in reaction? How is the Modi government so much more self-assured than Manmohan’s when dealing with Pakistan? The answer: Only Nixon could go to China.

Outflanking the hardliners

In 1972, President Richard Nixon started to take the first steps to normalise relations with China. Till then, the United States considered China to be an enemy country, so much so that it did not even recognise it diplomatically (the US recognised the government in Taiwan to be the representative of China). Of course, this restricted the US' freedom of movement. Relations with China would give the United States more leverage with the Soviet Union as well as help resolve the ongoing Vietnam War, in which China was a major player.

With anti-Communist sentiment being high in the US, dealing with China carried with it significant political risks. The president before Nixon was Lyndon Johnson, who saw his “Democratic party as being vulnerable if it were seen to be soft on Communism, Soviet or Chinese”. Any perceived concessions by the liberal Democrats would be exploited politically by the right wing Republicans.

Nixon, though, didn’t have this problem. He had made his entire political career as a shrill, right wing hardliner stridently opposed to Communism. While Johnson’s overtures to China could be exploited by the right, Nixon was the right personified. With his anti-communist credentials more than established amongst American hardliners, Nixon was able to usher in a new era in US-China relations. So impactful was this that the phrase "only Nixon could go to China" became a metaphor for a politician successfully taking a stance that, in the normal course, would have been strongly opposed by his support base. It became so popular that it even featured on Star Trek as an "old Vulcan proverb".

Modi = Nixon

This is, of course, exactly what’s happening with Modi. Narendra Modi has spent his entire career being extremely hawkish on Pakistan. In the 2002 state elections, he even managed to make Pakistan and “Miyan Musharaff” into a campaign issue. Hardliners trust Modi even in the face of grave provocations such as the Pathankot siege – a luxury the Congress did not have during its years in power. Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has come out in support of Modi's peace overtures towards Pakistan.

For Pathankot, the Congress’ rather mild attack on the government, pointing out that “despite the PM's visit, ISI continues to sustain and support terror activities against India” has mostly gone unnoticed. The Bharatiya Janata Party simply dismissed it as "politicising" terror. In contrast, Narendra Modi had made a strong impact during the 2008 Mumbai attacks with his hardline stance on Pakistan. He flew down immediately to Mumbai while the attacks were on to address the media, criticised Manmohan Singh’s response as “disappointing” and even announced a compensation of Rs 1 crore for each Indian security guard killed. While the attacks were on, the Bharatiya Janata Party even published advertisements in major dailies to try and pressurise the government.

Of course, how Modi utilises this immense political capital he has with respect to Pakistan remains to be seen in the days to come. Will he snap back to his hardline stance? Or will he take advantage of his unique position to keep on engaging with Pakistan?